Indoor Games and Enrichment for dogs

Indoor Games and Enrichment for dogs

Few of us would believe that our dogs would be perfectly happy just lying around without any physical or mental stimulation any more than we would think that our children could properly develop without play. Maybe the problem is that we can so easily plough on with our busy lives without giving it very much thought.

It’s easy to see how much our dogs love the enrichment provided by walks and by games that involve chasing and fetching toys but, in a world where so much of our time – and theirs – is spent indoors, finding a few ways to provide mental stimulation is not only a fun thing to do but also a necessary component of their wellbeing.

Enrichment is so important because it allows our dogs to be dogs, and the mental stimulation it can provide gives them something positive and meaningful to do. If we cast our minds back to how the relationship between dog and man first developed, we can see that many dogs love to work, but we may find it rather more difficult in this digital world to find useful or valuable things for them to work at. Not only that, but, because these activities help keep the dog focused and relieve boredom, they are really useful in reducing the opportunities for our dogs to engage in unwanted or destructive behavioural issues such as barking or eating the sofa while we are out.

Here are a number of things that you can play with your dog and some of them double up as useful ways to engage your dog’s attention when you’re not with them.

  • ‘Nose work’ games such as “find the toy” or “find the treats”. Dogs are just as individual as people and have different responses to rewards. We have a Labrador for whom food is a far greater motivator than toys or games, but we also have a Springer spaniel for whom a ball is the principal focus and food/treats come a very distinctive second! Whichever reward you choose, allow your dog to see you hiding a number of treats or toys around the room then give the cue word to release the dog to find each one, praising him or her profusely when each one is ‘discovered’. It’s important that you and your family use the same cue word to release the dog and that you praise the dog at each discovery so that the dog soon becomes familiar with the rules of the game. After a short time, you can add a further dimension by hiding the rewards without the dog seeing you, maybe keeping the dog in a different room, and then starting the game by saying the cue word.
  • Other variations can be the age-old game of hiding something under one of three cups and then releasing the dog to find the elusive reward or getting the dog to discover which hand holds the reward.
  • Teaching your dog to “go and find” is another variation and this can expand the area of play to other rooms or both indoors and outdoors. The rules are similar to the games discussed above but require the dog to have confidence in you allowing him to find the reward and, on occasion, helping him to do so. This is not dissimilar, in the dog’s mind, to the two of you working together in a find and retrieve game and encourages partnership between you. If you combine the game with his favourite toys and appropriate treat rewards the level of fun will escalate considerably.
  • Playing tug of war is an age-old favourite with dogs and there are plenty of toys that are designed with this in mind. It can be played indoors or outdoors (or both!) and provides both physical and mental stimulation as it mimics an activity that, in the wild, dogs would naturally do between themselves. Make sure you allow your dog to win sometimes – not only does this make the game far more interesting for the dog but it encourages the relationship between you as it makes the dog more confident and more willing to learn.
  • Dogs love to learn new tricks and very few dogs consider themselves too old for such an activity. Just make sure that the trick is not something that diminishes your dog’s feeling of comfort with you or makes the dog embarrassed. Tricks should be motivational and fun – not something that makes the dog look amusing for human entertainment. Teaching your dog to lie down, roll over, to weave in and out of your legs takes very little time and, with the reinforcement of rewards, can be great fun for you both!
  • Hide and seek has been a firm favourite with children for thousands of years and dogs love it too. If your dog has difficulty with the stay command, you may need to enrol another person in the game to restrain the dog while you go off and hide but, with work and perseverance, the need for extra help should soon reduce.
  • Stuffing a toy, such as a Kong, with suitable food or treats is another favourite and keeping the stuffed toy in the freezer overnight is a great way to provide mental stimulation for your dog even if you have to leave him for a while. It will last for around half an hour for many dogs but, as a word of caution, this is best done on a floor where any stickiness or mess can easily be cleaned up. There are several sites offering advice on a wide number of different fillings, but these are all more fun than seeking out a site for someone to come and shampoo the carpet!
  • Snuffle mats and Licky mats are a favourite with many dogs and are easily available from most pet shops. They comprise a flat, soft plastic mat which is covered in short, soft plastic teeth into which you rub any of a number of doggy-delicious materials such as yoghurt or peanut butter. The dog has to work to remove all the foodstuff from between all the little teeth on the mat and this provides several minutes of fun and activity. Both this and the frozen, stuffed Kong are of great help if you are leaving the dog for a while.
  • Interactive toys can be great fun too. Many of these will dispense treats or small kibbles of dried food as they are pushed around the floor, but you can make your own with a stable, galvanized bucket full of the small plastic balls that children use in a play pit. Hiding toys or several treats at the bottom of the bucket means that the dog has to navigate past all of the balls to get to the rewards.
  • Finally, teaching your dog to chase bubbles from a bubble machine is great fun. There are some exotic electric toys on the market but the simple and inexpensive tube of soap solution with a plastic hoop, such as used by children all over the world, can provide just as much fun.
  • Actually, using the word ‘finally’ in the previous paragraph is a little misleading as there is no limit to the type of games and toys that you can use with your dog and the investment of just a short period of time into the training will be beneficial to both you and your dog. When all else fails, remember that dogs need to chew. Chewing is an essential part of every dog’s make up and provides important physiological as well as mentally rewarding exercise that should be as much a part of our dogs’ daily routines as regular exercise. Just as you would with toys, make sure that the chews that you provide are safe and appropriate for your dog; this is most important if you will be leaving the dog unsupervised for any period of time.

    If in any doubt, your veterinary surgeon will be happy to advise you.

    If you would like any further advice on indoor games and enrichment for your dog, please contact the OSCAR Helpline on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email

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